It was a plea for help that would make any halfway competent consumer advocate reach for his cape. It appeared to involve thousands of dollars of lost money, a scheme to defraud multiple customers, and an intransigent company. But looks can be deceiving.
As I investigated, I became skeptical of the reader’s claims. It turns out the thousands of missing dollars were actually estimates of lost time, not real money. And it wasn’t the company being dishonest – instead, the “defrauded” customers had tried to exploit a loophole in a sloppily-written contract. No wonder the company was so reluctant to consider their request.
Experience has taught me that you don’t tell customers like that “no.” You say you’ll look into it. You tell them you’ll get back to them. And then you say nothing.
(True story: Early in my consumer advocacy career, I would turn down people I couldn’t or wouldn’t be able to help. I remember one woman became so irate that she called my editor, canceled her subscription and told all her friends I was a good-fer-nothin’. I don’t care to repeat that experience.)
I’m about to reveal the types of cases that are almost always dismissed outright by me – and probably by the company you’re dealing with. And I’ll tell you a secret. (More on that in a sec.)
Here are the kinds of cases that get a thumbs-down from me:
1. The parasite.
You can spot these dishonest customers a mile away. They’re looking to exploit a company’s desire to offer the best customer service by forcing them to offer a free product or service. Here’s a true story, as told to me by an executive at a major hotel chain. One of the company’s brands offered a 100 percent satisfaction guarantee – or your money back. The company discovered one customer who had successfully invoked the guarantee dozens of times and received free accommodations. It sent her a note telling her to stop staying in its properties, because there was no way it could satisfy her. I run from cases like that. I don’t want to become anyone’s accomplice.
2. The frivolous complainer.
I’ve lost count the number of grievances that were unresolvable because the customer didn’t have a case. Staying with the hotel theme for a minute, how do you respond to someone who wants all of his money back for a room because the shower ran lukewarm or a housekeeper accidentally left the door ajar? Other eyerollers include grievances written in ALL UPPERCASE that run on for pages. The old rule of thumb that when neither the law nor the facts are on your side, just hammer the table, holds true here. These are some of the most difficult cases to turn down, because the aggrieved party really thinks it has a strong case.
3. The “Gimme Pig.”
These greedy customers are the easiest to say “no” to. They demand the world for minor inconveniences, and they see their trouble as a chance to exploit a company (see #1 and #2). You can tell you’re dealing with a Gimme Pig when a request for compensation is way out of line. Like the woman whose dishwasher sprung a leak and demanded that the manufacturer replace the entire kitchen (even the parts that were undamaged by the water). Say it with me: A customer service failure is not an opportunity to enrich yourself!
4. The “Customer is Never Wrong” customer.
Oh, you know who I’m talking about because you’re probably related to someone who feels this way. Maybe you are someone who feels this way. But the sad fact is, we can’t always be right, and anyone who feels a company should go out of its way to make them happy is living in the last century. Unfortunately, if you ask for something to which you aren’t entitled – I run into this often with folks who ask for refunds on nonrefundable airline tickets or to have their two-year wireless contract voided – you probably won’t get it. I say “no” to them not because I don’t want to help, but because I can’t. Companies know that waiving a rule for a consumer advocate sets an awful precedent.
5. The pain in the derriere.
I don’t know how else to say this, but if you threaten the company – or me – your chances of getting something addressed are slim to none. I understand that when you’ve run into a customer service problem, you’re not feeling charitable. But I could play you voicemails from angry customers who demand a refund from me (they apparently think I work for the company that took advantage of them). Their hostility continues, working its way into emails, where they’re pushy and obnoxious. My service is free, but I don’t have to take every case that crosses my desk. If you refer to my mediation attempts as “useless” and call me “clueless” or accuse me of being in a company’s pocket, what incentive do I have to help you?
So here’s my secret: When you write to me asking (or demanding) that I help, I may use another trick stolen from corporate America’s playbook: I’ll send you a polite answer that I’m “looking into it” and promise to get back to you soon if I can help.
It’s a form letter. I’d much rather tell you “no” and explain why, but I don’t have the time for an argument. If I have to turn down these grievances, imagine what an overworked customer service rep will do?
Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate who blogs about getting better customer service at On Your Side. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook or send him your questions at by email.